There’s a picture on the Internet of a small cypress palm tree planted by railroad executive Julius Kruttschnitt, Sr., in 1897 at a train station in Burlingame, Ca., that had opened only a couple years before. The photo, taken in 1901, shows two small children playing near the palm, which was already rising above their heads.
Well, I’m here to report that the palm would dwarf those kids today. In fact, it would probably take a dozen four -year-olds stacked on top of each other to reach the top fronds, which hang like a firework in the sky. The king palm stands more than 40 feet tall, lording over the train station, which, interestingly, doesn’t look much different than when it was first opened.
The palm might as well be an historic landmark in Burlingame, which was a sparsely populated rural outpost when it was planted. Kruttschnitt, who was general manager of the Southern Pacific Railroad, planted the tree in the same year that he built a summer home in the nearby hills. On the grounds of that home you can find some huge palms probably planted around the same time.
Truth be told, the beautiful Mission Revival train station is easily a more important landmark than the palm. The station was built in 1894 with in part $8000 collected from wealthy members of the Burlingame Country Club, including Kruttschnitt. The group hired architects George Howard and Joachim B. Mathisen to design the station.
The architects drew from the architecture used to design the old Spanish Missions that dot in the region. You can find a prominent arcade, used to dispense train tickets today; an adobe cornice; a star window; and clay roof tiles. The original roof tiles from two 17th-century missions — the Mission San Antonio De Padua at Jolon and the Mission Dolores Asistencia at San Mateo.
The railroad depot, which opened for service on October 10, 1894, may be the most recognizable landmark in Burlingame. Located at the junction of California Drive and Burlingame Avenue, it was named a state landmark in 1972 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. It was the first permanent building of the Mission Revival style in Burlingame.
When the station opened, it was considered the largest, most pretentious train station between San Francisco and San Jose. George Gates was the station master in 1895. He lived with his family in the south wing of the station currently occupied by the Chamber of Commerce. The station master had a pretty nice crib; it consisted of two bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, dining room, and bath.
During Gates’ time, the train station doubled as a post office, which Gates also managed. He also operated the telegraph machine and served as the local Wells Fargo rep. Gates, who left his position in 1905, was no doubt present when President Theodore Roosevelt arrived “with considerable fanfare” on May 12, 1903 on his way to have lunch with members of the Burlingame Country Club.
Roosevelt’s welcoming committee included Henry T. Scott, a prominent citizen of Burlingame and chairman of the board of directors of Pacific Telephone and Telegraph. Roosevelt apparently counted a Hillsborough resident, Moses A. Gunst, among his closest confidants. He was a wealthy cigar maker who had a central Burlingame vacation estate.
Many years later, President Harry S. Truman, graced the railroad depot with a brief visit during his furious “whistlestop” campaign for the presidency in 1948. He addressed the multitudes from the observation car of his Presidential Special.
Burlingame is known today as the “City of Trees.” Yet in 1854, documents describe the Peninsula area as nearly treeless, a “vast, windswept prairie.” The wealthy landowners who built vacation homes here around the turn of the century before last thought that planting trees was the key to making the land more habitable.
That’s interesting, but the big question is: Who were the children pictured in the old photograph? Thanks to the Burlingame Historical Society, we know that one was Cliff Gates, the son of Burlingame’s first station master. The other was Jessie Murphy, the son of Milbrae’s first station master. Another mystery solved.